Perigord Noir-not a good fit for us

Old Jun 7th, 2013, 09:42 PM
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Perigord Noir-not a good fit for us

We have just returned from 9 days in the Dordogne. This forum and the TA board were of great assistance in planning our stay. We rented a small gite just outside of St. Pompon, about a 2 hour drive north of Toulouse. The property was well furnished but and had almost all mod-cons, save and except a very unreliable WIFI connection. The grounds and cascading wisteria were beautiful but the pollen count was so high that even the owner’s dog was coughing. DH suffered terribly with hay fever, in part from the flora and fauna and in part from the natural dust that occurs in a 300 year old converted barn. The weather was unseasonably cool with a couple of sunny days but more frequently, high overcast skies. We had some rain, but not enough to prevent us from touring about. I had been warned that the weather in May was unpredictable. We brought everything from summer clothes to rain gear and wool sweaters. We wore them all; sometimes within the same day.

We arrived late on a Saturday evening. The gite owner had stocked our unit with a care package of eggs, bread, milk, cheese, tomatoes and a nice bottle of Bergerac wine. It was a very nice gesture and it ensured that we did not starve that first night. We awoke the next day in time to catch the tail end of the Sunday market in St. Cyprien. We picked up some more essentials, and because it was after noon, there was virtually nothing open to really allow us to properly provision. We purchased some wine and food products from some local producers just outside of Beynac, and were directed by the proprietor to a small shop near Castelnaud where we could find bread and other basics. I enjoy cooking so it was nice to work with some local products and put together a nice meal.

St Pompon is very rural and a 25 minute drive to most sites in Perigord Noir. There are two restaurants and one bar. The restaurant was only open three evenings a week. As it had a limited number of tables, it was very difficult to get a reservation, though we did ultimately succeed just a few days before our departure. The other restaurant (not nearly as appealing) was not open most evenings. The small grocery store and the patisserie were also closed more often than not. It had to do with the week of our stay, there were two statutory holidays, and some shops were closed for three days in a row.

We did manage to eat at Le Petit Paris in Daglan, a 10 minute drive (perfectly acceptable but not extraordinary) and at le St-Martial in St Martial de Nabirat (much better). We found both restaurants less expensive than eating at similar quality restaurants in North America. Service at each was attentive and friendly and other patrons appeared to be local. The local restaurant L’Envie des Mets in St Pompon was rustic, with large portions, reasonable food at a very affordable price.

We took in many recommended sites: Beynac, Sarlat, Castelnaud, Chateau des Milandes, le Gouffre de Padirac, Rocamadour, La Roque Gageac, Les Eyzies and the Pre-history centre, La Roque St. Christophe, Peche Merle, Belves. Domme, Montpazier and Cadouin. Some were more enjoyable than others.

The architecture in Sarlat is beautiful, but the extensive roadwork made driving in and out difficult. We enjoyed wandering in this medieval village but found it very busy and touristy, even in early May. Further along the road, we preferred Castelnaud to Beynac: the history was much better presented. The nearby Chateau des Milandes was also very interesting, but the falcon show was disappointing. There was one trainer and a falcon that did some fly-overs for about five minutes. We have some close-up photos of the lovely falcon. I believe that we may have been the only spectators so the show may have been scaled back.

We did not reserve online for the Gouffre de Padirac and we should have. We noticed those with online reservations walk to the front of the line: reservations are well advised, particularly on a stat holiday. It was a 90 minute drive from our gite and we waited in a long line for a further two hours to get inside. The cavern itself was spectacular. The guide said that it would be too demanding for him to present the tour in English as well as French and Dutch (the Dutch family in our group spoke English). He heard me translating for DH and then relented when he found out we were Canadian because he was a serious fan of Neil Young. Go figure! He guided in all three languages, and recounted details of all the past Neil Young concerts he had attended.

Rocamadour was interesting but also very touristy. We took the mini train to save time as it had begun to rain. The Chapels were exquisite and the staircase of pilgrims was striking. We could visualize the faithful ascending on their knees. This site was also crowded, even in early May. There was an abundance of tourist shops selling the usual trinkets which detracted from the religious significance of Rocamadour.

The pre-history centre in les Eyzies was an interesting prelude to la Roque St Christophe, where we spent about an hour. It was long enough for us. The weather was cool and showery. Due to the stairs and rough surfaces, good footwear is essential. The river and countryside in this area were very green and lush.

Our daytrip to Peche Merle was a highlight. This time we made online reservations. It was very moving to see a human handprint from 25,000 years ago on the cave wall. The etchings and cave paintings were captivating. The only negative was a family that insisted on bringing their toddler on the tour inside the cave. The child, obviously frightened, screamed throughout and ran about touching the cave walls. It certainly impacted on the experience for the rest of the group. We were surprised that there was no minimum age requirement to enter into this and other cave sites.

We spent long days in our rental car and I am sure that we drove on every narrow D route in Perigord Noir. DH claims to have driven 1300 km during our trip-a considerable amount considering that most sites were within 25 km of our gite. Driving from village to village was fine but after a week, it became routine. Our vehicle was equipped with a navigation system. It was indispensible: no fighting over maps, etc. We only made a wrong turn once near la Grotte de la Sorciere in St. Cirq. I told DH that “voie sans issue” meant dead end lane, but he persisted because the navigation system had directed us that way. We ended up in someone’s private driveway. It turned out that they were fellow Canadians who had purchased a home in the area. Small world!

Because there were two statutory holidays mid-week, many businesses stayed closed for the balance of the week. We visited the Abbey in Cadouin with the hope of visiting the small art gallery next door, recommended by the owner of our gite. Other than the abbey and cloisters, the village was essentially closed on a Saturday afternoon, including the art gallery. Too bad, I looked in the window and would have loved to have purchased something! We saw a tour bus pull up and disgorge about 50 tourists into an empty village. This is unfortunate and a lost economic opportunity for the village, especially since France announced that it was officially in recession as of the first week in May. We had similar experiences in a number of smaller villages, and yes, we are familiar with afternoon closures.

The Perigord Noir was very green and hilly. Fruit trees were in blossom and small villages were adorned with colorful flowers. There are many campsites and outdoor activities in the region. I understand that canoeing on the Dordogne is very popular. It was simply too cold to canoe on the river during our trip. Had it been warmer, we likely would have chosen a 90 minute option as I cannot imagine spending more time in a canoe, though others may have a different view. DH is an avid cyclist, but cycling on dedicated trails and abandoned rail beds held little appeal for him. There were very few cyclists on the roads because they are so narrow with undulating terrain. St. Pompon has a national mountain biking race every May, but the trails are not near the quality that we enjoy in our own backyard. There are also many hiking trails and local walks-not really our “thing”.

We have been to France many times before and have explored several regions. I have also lived and studied in Paris. For us, this was our least favorite region in terms of our interests and travel style. Throughout this trip DH repeatedly asked: “Why did you bring us here?” I thought I had done sufficient homework and that there would be enough to satisfy our obvious “A” type personalities. I was wrong. If I could redo this trip, I would have stayed in a larger centre with more amenities and for a shorter duration. We were required to abbreviate our trip due to a serious illness in the family. Even though I was reluctant to leave the food and wine, we were ready to leave the region. I regret that we did not get to Bordeaux or to the wine region near St. Emilion. That will have to wait for another trip.

I am acquainted with a young Belgian teacher who spent summers camping in the Dordogne with her family throughout her childhood. She had warned me: “Il n’y a pas grande chose à faire en Dordogne”. From our perspective, quant au Perigord Noir, je suis d’accord.

My children (now grown) would have been extremely bored in Perigord Noir. (At 9 and 12 they loved Normandy, Paris, the Loire and Burgundy). There is wonderful history in the region, but the available outdoor activities are simply not of the same variety and scale as those available in other parts of the world. If I were travelling with children in this region I would ensure that they had access to a pool to keep them entertained after a day of sight-seeing.

This is not to suggest that others may not find Perigord Noir interesting, it likely depends on individual interests and past travel experiences. The area just did not capture us to the same extent as other regions in France. We will seek out more urban options in the future.
pirouette is offline  
Old Jun 8th, 2013, 02:59 AM
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Though some of your conclusions were negative, you got a lot out of the trip because you learned a lot about yourselves as well as about the area.

May I touch on a couple of learning points for the benefit of other travelers?

First, never underestimate the effect of Sundays and of holidays on your ability to do what you want, particularly shop, even for necessities. The French revere and take holidays that you and I have never heard of, and they close their shops and restaurants. You will find it hard to get a meal and very difficult to buy groceries, even in Paris.

Second, never underestimate the importance of weather on your trip. We went through three "springs": March-April in Virginia, early May in Nantucket, and late May in Paris. In Paris it was cold and rainy and there was sleet, but mostly the chestnut trees were in full blossom, beautiful but the pollen was so bad that I thought I might rupture a blood vessel in my lungs. Sometimes I coughed so hard that I had to lean against a wall. I know I am allergic to maples, but I didn't know I am allergic to chestnuts, so I very much feel for your husband. If you have tree and flower allergies, I would strongly recommend that you not go to France from. Mid-April to mid-May in a normal year. This was a abnormal year, so you would haven been hosed whenever.

Third, never rely on the ability or willingness of tour guides to speak English, whatever it said in the New York Times or on the website.

Finally, know thyself. If you are city folks, don't go to the deep country or plan to stay a very short time if you do. You learned this, and it is an invaluable lesson. We enjoyed our stay because we stayed in town (Sarlat -- a very different place after the buses leave) and because we and our friends have an unending interest in village markets and Romanesque architecture, both churches and fortified towns. I bet we too drove on all those D roads, but we liked them all. I liked Rocamadour, my friends hated it be ause they are lapsedmCatholics.
Ackislander is offline  
Old Jun 8th, 2013, 03:12 AM
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Thanks for the honest and thorough review.
indy_dad is offline  
Old Jun 8th, 2013, 03:21 AM
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we too were caught out in a rental in France [in what was billed as the southern Loire in our case] a few years ago. lots of time spent travelling to where we wanted to be which was the Loire proper. Still like you we made the best of it and still enjoyed ourselves, just possibly not as much as we might have done had we booked the right place.

In that case I was the one who was saying "why have you brought us here?" as DH had booked it as a package with the ferry company as it looked to be a real bargain.

cheap it was, bargain it wasn't!
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Old Jun 8th, 2013, 04:01 AM
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Very good review.

I live an hour SW of Toulouse and what you discovered about your travel preferences also apply to my area, and then some!

We love it here but try to be very, very careful when encouragibg friends to visit. It is a beautiful area but there are longish distances between sights and restaurants. When people are here long enough to get into the rhythm, they have a better stay.

After almost four years, we are sometimes frustrated by opening hours and lack of choice but for us the benefits out-weigh the annoyances. Not sure it would be the same if we were tourists in our sometimes Tyoe A mode!
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Old Jun 8th, 2013, 04:19 AM
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Thanks so much for your report. I for one, really value a balanced review - so many people either just rave or complain. Your report is very timely for me as we will be there in two weeks. From your report I am glad we are staying in Sarlat, and also feel better about only having four days. I was really getting the impression that I would be frustrated trying to see all I want in that time frame but it sounds like you did most of the things on my 'list'. So sorry about your weather and having to cut your trip short. Thanks for posting.
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Old Jun 8th, 2013, 04:50 AM
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This is a good and valuable post, imo. We stayed just down the road from St. Pompon, and we count it as one of our favorite trips ever. But...not everyplace is for everyone, and different travelers have different styles and wants and expectations. Your honest opinion of the place is every bit as important as mine, or anyone else's. thanks for your candor!
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Old Jun 8th, 2013, 05:05 AM
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Very nice report, P.

I hope your next trip is more enjoyable for you.

ira is offline  
Old Jun 8th, 2013, 05:26 AM
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We went a couple of years ago and loved it. Thought the area was beautiful. However, we never would have stayed in some house in the middle of nowhere. Not having a restaurant within 10 minutes from you, makes touring a chore. Then, if there's only 1 or 2 you're stuck if they're closed.

We stayed in 3 different areas when we went and found that really worked for us. Only longish driving time was between areas when we switched. And the drives were lovely. Once in our new place, no long drives to restaurants, etc.
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Old Jun 8th, 2013, 05:50 AM
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Thank you for the report. I was able to take many helpful comments about the Perigord from it.

Since most of our trips to Europe are in May and September, when visiting France in May with the possibility of so many National and religious holidays, I have learned the location of our stay at those times is very important.

Thanks again, Deborah
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Old Jun 8th, 2013, 07:19 AM
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To further expand on what Ackislander said about things closed on Sundays, we always arrive at a Gite on Sat 4PM with a "shopping list" of things we need for the first week - things like coffee, coffee filters, olive oil, TP, duck breasts, etc. While my wife "checks in" with the proprietor, I dash around the gite and take inventory of what items are available at the gite, so we don't have to purchase them at the grocery. Then we make a mad dash to the local large grocery to buy the stuff - along with hoards of other gite people doing the same thing. We never enjoy our "first Saturdays".

We've stayed at 50 gites over 81 weeks. It's our experience that the large grocery stores are open only about 5-10% of the time on Sundays (morning only - we've never experienced a grocery open in the afternoon). The exceptions are almost always cities/villages that have their farmer's markets on Sundays - like St Cyprien in the Dordogne and l'Isle sur la Sorgue in Provence. In the case here, pirouette unfortunately got a late start at the St Cyrpien market, which made her too late to shop at the large grocery just off the D703 south of the center of St Cyprien where the farmer's market is located.

Stu Dudley
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Old Jun 8th, 2013, 08:50 AM
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Thanks for your honesty. Too many people only seem to know the adjectives "spectacular" and "yummy." It's a shame that things did not work out perfectly, but frankly I am unable to spend more than about 2 days in such an area before it all seems repetitive. Of course, when you come from Paris, most of the rest of the country seems like a ghost town with so much stuff closed or open only at inconvenient times, even when there are not holidays to additionally muddy the water.
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Old Jun 8th, 2013, 02:42 PM
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I spent five or six days in Sarlat and loved it (late March/early April during a not very rainy year) but I'm not sure nine days in the hinterlands would have been great for me. And I work a pretty intense job, so I do like lazy days on the country--somewhat lazy.

Thanks for your report!
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Old Jun 8th, 2013, 03:02 PM
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Thoroughly enjoyed your thoughtful and balanced report. Sorry about the rain but none of us have any control over that!

My DH and I enjoy this region but not our young adult children so much. We were lucky to be nearly the only ones visiting Rocamadour when last there.
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Old Jun 8th, 2013, 03:26 PM
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I enjoyed your report. My late husband and I enjoyed the Dordogne, but preferred the villages in Provence that seem like life is there.
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Old Jun 8th, 2013, 05:22 PM
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Pirouette, thanks for your frank and balanced account. Very thoughtful. Not every trip can be a feast of lights I guess although many of us hestitate to admit it.
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Old Jun 8th, 2013, 06:43 PM
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Very objective report, Pirouette. Dordogne is on my list but I'll have to be very selective on the location. I need to be within walking distance of a supermarket or restaurant. Thanks for sharing your impressions.
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Old Jun 8th, 2013, 07:08 PM
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Thanks for this report.
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Old Jun 8th, 2013, 07:18 PM
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Thank you for your objective and interesting report. We will be in Sarlat in 2 weeks. Hopefully no pollen to fire up my husband's allergy!

We will be staying 2 days in Toulouse, then driving to Sarlat to spend 5 days at Le Cordeliers. We particularly looked for a picturesque village, but with evening dining options just a stroll away.

I'm a very nervous Aussie passenger in Europe!
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Old Jun 8th, 2013, 07:54 PM
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Excellent, extremely informative report and one I appreciate as I plan for a three-month stay in rural France.

I've been looking at small towns in the Poitou Charante region and I'll now look more carefully at the facilities and distances.

Thank you!
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